With over 8 years of experience as a registered nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I’ve certainly seen my fair share of success stories & breakthroughs, tragedies, and countless numbers of exhausted parents. It is not only the most rewarding profession, but can also be the most challenging. Luckily, I go home at the end of the day to my friends and family. Parents of NICU babies do not.

Their loved ones are in an incubator, weighing 1Kg; fighting their 3rd infection that could take their life; have feeding intolerances – so are on day 26 of intravenous (IV) fluids; and are on necessary medications that can cause serious secondary effects. You see, my profession is not so bad. It is the parents of NICU babies that have it tough. They’re required to be strong, hopeful, and have faith that their sick baby will pull through.

There are many different ways NICU nurses can help parents of preemies, primarily by; taking excellent care of their babies, giving them a shoulder to cry on, and spending extra time re-explaining what overwhelming update they just received from their doctor. But what NICU nurses can also do is guide parents of preemies towards the best ways they can help their little one.

The following are my top 5 tips on how a parent can help their preemie in the NICU:

1. Hand Hygiene

Bacteria is EVERYWHERE. It lies on surfaces, cellphones, chairs, hands, and even around the baby’s zone. Although the baby’s area is kept as separate as possible from the rest of the NICU, there are still germs that lay around and get spread easily.

Being born several weeks or months too early has taken away [preemies’] ability to fight off infections

Premature babies are not only more susceptible to catching infections but also tend to be more severe: as they have not yet built an immune system. Being born several weeks or months too early has taken away their ability to fight off infections, therefore it is our responsibility as hospital staff and parents to protect them the best way we can. Hand hygiene is the utmost important practice for NICU babies as these preemies lives’ depend on it!

How to Practice Proper Hand Hygiene:

Proper hand hygiene includes using antiseptic soap (3-5mL), warm water, andscrub (including all crevices of hands and under nails) for a minimum of 15 seconds prior to entering the NICU. Using hand sanitizer (and rubbing until hands are dry), should be practiced right before entering your baby’s surroundings/zone, after touching your cell phone, after coughing/sneezing, prior to touching any of baby’s belongings in incubator, and especially prior to touching your baby.

2. Kangaroo Care

Kangaroo care is an important activity for both you and your spouse to do with your premature baby. It is the process of holding your preemie skin-to-skin on your bare chest. Your baby should only be wearing a diaper and hat while being covered with a warm blanket. This is best done for a minimum of an hour; as moving and taking out the baby disturbs their sleep. Kangaroo care can be done as often and as long as possible, depending on the baby’s stability and care schedule. Do kangaroo care with your preemie, and watch the benefits unfold in front of your eyes; calming your baby, bonding with your baby, easing sleep for your little one, and even helping with moms milk production and the introduction to breastfeeding.

Expressing your milk will be the best gift you can give your baby

3. Express Milk 

Although your baby may be ventilated and unable to breastfeed or may not be feeding due to intolerances, expressing your milk will be the best gift you can give your baby. Even if your preemie is taking milk by tube feeding (gavage) – keeping up with pumping is essential so that your milk production will be ready by the time your baby catches up! Freezing your breast milk if your baby is not taking much or any, is a great way to continue pumping regularly. This will allow for a readily supply of breastmilk when your baby begins to gavage feed or breastfeed. Try your best to express your milk every 2-3 hours and freeze away!

4. Reduce Stimulation

Reducing stimulation doesn’t mean you cannot touch your baby. It means limiting handling to when the baby really needs it or in conjunction with the care schedule. Constantly opening the incubator doors or touching your preemie, will interrupt the most crucial time for them: sleep. Clustering the times when going into the incubator will decrease stimuli which will allow your baby to sleep more soundly, grow, and get as strong as possible. The incubator cover or blanket not only reduces stimuli caused by external light but also from the noisy alarms and sounds of the NICU.

Good stimulation tips can be to softly sing, talk, or read to your baby will he is awake; or playing familiar sounds/music from when he was in the womb.

Proper support cannot be given to your loved one before taking care of yourself first

5. Self Care

The number one rule for any caregiver or support system, is that proper support cannot be given to your loved one before taking care of yourself first. Go home, get some rest, have a shower, eat, and attempt to get your mind off whats going on at the hospital for at least an hour/day. Taking care of yourself is not only important for you, your spouse and support system, but it is also important for milk production and your baby. It is NOT selfish or being a bad parent to take care of yourself. Your baby will thank you for it later!

I hope these tips were helpful for you – whether a caregiver or parent to a premature baby in the NICU. Comment below and let me know if you have other useful ways to help out your preemie!

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